Don’t reduce Democratic primaries to ‘skirt or negro’

Don't reduce Democratic primaries to 'skirt or negro'
Political scientist Gregg Bucken-Knapp takes issue with an Aftonbladet writer's assertion that “it doesn’t matter so much who becomes president – skirt or negro – it’s still the market that rules.”

On February 5th, voters in twenty-two states will participate in Democratic primaries and caucuses. On that day alone, more than half of the delegates to this summer’s Democratic convention will be chosen. With the exit of John Edwards, this is now essentially a two-person contest, with pundits and pollsters feverishly wondering whether either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama can emerge from this mega-contest with enough delegates or momentum to claim the title of frontrunner.

Yet for Aftonbladet columnist Åsa Linderborg, this doesn’t seem to be of much importance. As she put it prior to the Iowa caucuses, “it doesn’t matter so much who becomes president – skirt or negro – it’s still the market that rules.” For Americans seeking to transform their society, her voice is the counsel of despair: so long as there is capitalism, choosing between these two Democrats is a waste of time. Indeed, Linderborg’s analysis of American politics implies that campaigns are nothing more than a thinly-veiled puppet show, in which candidates are marionettes, where big corporations dictate campaign promises, and where special interest groups determine the foreign policy stances held by candidates. The only saving grace in Linderborg’s eyes is that class struggle drives how “yanks” actually vote.

It’s catchy rhetoric, but not everyone would share Linderborg’s view that which Democratic candidate may eventually become president is essentially meaningless. Many activists on the American left – who share her disregard for capitalism – view the Democratic primaries as an important opportunity for limiting the influence of market forces. Nor do Swedes necessarily benefit from her sweeping claims about the role of money in American politics or the importance of class struggle as a factor shaping the vote. Asserting that big business controls the policy agenda isn’t the same as demonstrating it. And there, political scientists can present evidence pointing toward sharply different conclusions than Linderborg.

First things first.

In this year’s Democratic contest, organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) know that the stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines. The 6,000 member sister-organization to the Swedish Social Democratic Party, DSA has played an active part in supporting the election campaigns of progressive politicians fighting against American capitalism. Their most visible success story is Bernie Sanders, the only openly-socialist member of the U.S. Senate, who rose to national prominence as the first Congressperson to organize “prescription drug bus tours” to Canada, allowing Americans to buy medicine at much lower prices than in the US.

While DSA has not yet endorsed a candidate, many in the organization feel they have little in common with Clinton. At its recent national convention, delegates hotly debated a proposed electoral resolution stating “DSA believes that progressives must cooperate to do everything possible to prevent Hillary Clinton — the epitome of neoliberal cynical opportunism – from being the Democratic nominee.” Indeed, blocking a neoliberal from winning the Democratic nomination is central to DSA. As national director Frank Llwellyn put it, “It would be a shame if the voters who championed the message we find so attractive went to the candidate most representative of neoliberalism in the U.S.” For these activists, the struggle against capitalism makes the Democratic contest an event of crucial importance, not something to shrug off as a sham.

However, if Linderborg understates the importance of the Democratic primaries in continuing the fight for a more equitable America, she also overstates the role of big business and class struggle. At first glance, it’s easy to agree with her broad claims. After all, if big corporations are financing the campaigns of the major candidates, doesn’t it only make sense that they would be calling the shots? Isn’t that just the conventional wisdom in Sweden of how America’s so-called democracy really works?

Perhaps there’s a flaw in the conventional wisdom. For while Linderborg says that understanding American society requires reading key critics of capitalism, such as Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, a sharply more nuanced picture could be had if we consulted the political science research literature.

Two examples should suffice.

Those arguing that big business pulls the strings in American politics frequently claim that interest groups buy legislative outcomes through campaign donations. Yet, John Wright, a professor at Ohio State University, has repeatedly shown that this is simply not the case. In one of his most recent articles, he demonstrates that while the tobacco industry is able to get what it wants from Washington policymakers, it’s not because of campaign contributions. Rather, big tobacco is generally successful because targeted legislators hold specifically pro-business and anti-regulatory ideologies.

Linderborg also claims “pocket book issues – that is, the class struggle” are decisive for Americans when they enter the ballot box. Here too, the evidence from the political science research literature speaks to the contrary. Nearly thirty years ago, Morris Fiorina demonstrated that Americans cast their vote on the basis of whether they believe the nation’s economy as a whole (and not their personal financial situation) had gone well during the previous administration. If it has, voters are likely to support the incumbent party. If not, they consider voting for the challengers, assuming voters can be persuaded that they are reliable. Fiorina’s findings not only shaped an entire generation of voting behavior specialists, they were central to the internal rallying cry of the 1992 Clinton campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

On February 5th, millions of Americans will go to the polls in the Democratic primaries, casting their votes largely in favor of either Clinton or Obama. Linderborg would like us to believe that the power of big business means this is nothing more than a choice between “skirt or negro”. But that’s both simplistic and insulting. For on Tuesday, millions of Democratic voters – left-wing, centrist and conservative – will flock to the polls and choose between competing visions for how America can be taken back from the hands of the Republican Party. To suggest that the power of the marketplace makes the hopes and hard work of politically-active Americans a waste of time is not only cynical, it’s wrong.

Dr. Gregg Bucken-Knapp

Senior Lecturer in Political Science

International Program for Politics and Economics

University West / Högskolan Väst